British Romantic Poetry
Courses in English Romantic Poetry have generally concentrated on six male figures of the era whose works were seen to form the core of the traditional Romantic canon, Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, Shelley, and Keats. However, evolving critical approaches and perspectives over the last thirty years, and the recovery and publication of neglected texts from the period, have brought to light a long list of significant female poets, both those who were the precursors of the Romantics and those who wrote contemporaneously with them, whose work can no longer be overlooked. The six (formerly?) canonical Romantic poets have acquired over the last two hundred years a stature in Anglo-American literary studies, that has obliged us for years to approach all newly recovered voices from the past, no matter how relevant, profound, or noteworthy, from the lens of their acknowledged achievements. With the increasing availability of works by women from the Romantic period, we no longer feel an obligation to filter the voices that have remained submerged and forgotten for so long through this refracting medium. The female romantic poets can now be studied in their own right, and on their own terms.
The Romantic Age was one of the most remarkable periods of creativity in English literary history and marked a seminal shift in attitude and outlook. It signaled the decline of old feudal structures and ushered in an era of individualism, revolution, and democratic decision-making. In its fierce assertion of individual rights, as in the literary switch from the public to the private voice, it established in many ways the foundations for the world we know today. Paradoxically, it also ended up generating a sense of revolutionary elitism and notions of artistic autonomy and cultural superiority that themselves came to represent an important condition of European (and, of course, British) imperialism. On the other hand, British Romantic writers were heavily influenced by their understanding of the Orient (culled from travel narratives, histories, and translations of Oriental works and, sometimes, experienced first-hand) and freely appropriated its texts, aesthetics, themes, architectural models, and cultural attitudes even as they exaggerated its excesses and satirized its mores and manners. In this implication of Imperial design and Oriental influences we find yet another approach to the Romantic period, and this theme too will be explored in this course.
We shall study, thus, both the works of poets that were a part of the “traditional” Romantic canon as well as those by others, mostly female writers, who wrote with great effectiveness and success in their times, but whom later ages came to ignore. At the same time, instead of confining ourselves to the influences of German Romanticism and indigenous sources, we shall trace also the course of Oriental influences and concerns in examining the works of poets and thinkers who came to shape and define the Romantic literary landscape from about 1770 to 1835. In the process, we shall investigate the possible relationship of these writers and their works to the imperial project that was in full swing at this time. Our objective is to study the works not only within their literary tradition but also within their socio-cultural and historical context.
Our study of the British romantic poets will include essays from the English Romantic Poets (ed., M. H. Abrams), excerpts from Elizabeth Fay’s A Feminist Introduction to Literature, and may also include chapters from Romanticism and Colonialism: Writing and Empire, 1780-1830 (Eds., Tim Fulford and Peter Kitson). We shall refer to these essays, excerpts, and chapters and use ideas from them for our discussions on the listed poets and poems.